Reader Caroline writes:
Would be very interested in unpacking issues of the center from existentialism through post-structuralism.
It’s been a while since I read about the post-structuralist life on a “decentered” planet, and I don’t know enough about existentialism to make too many claims, but there do seem to be a couple of whopping contradiction in an existentialist worldview. The nutshell version of Sartre’s philosophy seems to be this: “Existence precedes essence, therefore there is no story (such as God) that can take accountability for our actions. We are 100 percent responsible for ourselves and our actions, and to deny responsibility is philosophical cowardice.”
The contradiction is that Sartre wrote narratives — stories in the form of novels and plays — to dramatize this philosophy. I don’t really know what to make of that. I’d argue people are hard-wired to understand things in terms of narrative — be it a morality tale you tell your kid (“the boy cried wolf”) or a myth to explain God. So one existential project is to use a story to explain why stories should be suspect (and that’s one branch of the postmodern novel). Maybe that’s not a contradiction; maybe it’s more like offering someone McDonald’s and, while they eat, showing them graphic images of clogged arteries and obese flesh.
A second contradiction, that maybe isn’t inherent in the philosophy itself (because I’m not sure there is a coherent, fully-realized version of existential philosophy), is that the worldview that emerged in the 1940s was godless — there is no story, and there is no god to explain existence. But the emphasis on personal responsibility is very Republican, very conservative of them. A liberal Democrat’s job is to provide a story — “I was talking to a woman in South Carolina, who has three kids and her husband lost her job…” — to justify a social program, such as extending unemployment benefits. Sartre, certainly, must object to that.
Dostoevsky, while offering many contradicting dialogues, seems at his core a man who wants to believe in God, and a man who believes a Christian state is the only way to hold that center together. It would be interesting to pair him with Edmund Burke: Burke was mistrustful of the French Revolution because he felt once you broke the old guard, there would be nothing to prevent the new guard from being broken. Only by holding true to the old aristocratic mores, with backing by the church, could a state succeed.
It’s also interesting to consider this material in light of the current tea party movement. I was more concerned about them a few months ago, because I wouldn’t have put it past someone, during the height of the health care legislation, to take a shot at Obama. Part of it was media — the media was showing us images of tea party rage. But were they voices calling for reform or revolution? I wrote about that a while back, but it bears repeating under the Dostoevsky discussion because the past two years in American politics feel Dostoevskian.